This week we read parashat Pekudei, which in some years is read together with parashat Vayakhel. The reason for this is the lunar-solar nature of the Jewish calendar; wherein in non-leap years (such as the year 5778) there aren’t enough weeks to read each Torah portion separately. During leap years (like the current 5779) we have time to read Pekudei as a stand alone reading.
Clearly, the Moon and the Sun determine the rhythm of Jewish life. This influence was much stronger in Biblical times, when most people living in the ancient Middle East would go to sleep right after sunset. In this regard Jews differed from their neighbors, since they would eat a meal after sunset by the light of Shabbat candles. This meal by candlelight – and in those times candles were quite pricey items – was equated with delighting in Shabbat (Oneg Shabbat), a practice encouraged by the prophet Isaiah:
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, From pursuing your affairs on My holy day; If you call the sabbath “delight,” The [Eternal’s] holy day “honored”… Then you can seek the favor of the [Eternal] (Isaiah 58:13-14.)
Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, also known as the Vilna Gaon, claimed that the light of Shabbat candles is supposed to help us delight in the arrival of Shabbat; he believed that preparing to light the candles helps us realize the importance of Shabbat even before it actually begins. A crucial part of Shabbat preparations is to light the candles before sunset, so that we won’t violate one of the prohibitions stated at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion:
You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day (Exodus 35:3.)
Since the light of Shabbat candles is identified with the spirit of Shabbat and also due to the prohibition against lighting the candles after Shabbat starts, the latest possible time for lighting the candles (which is 18 minutes before sunset according to Rabbinical tradition) is viewed as the time when Shabbat actually starts and therefore no work can be done after it, regardless of whether the candles have already been lit or not.
In addition, our tradition links the lighting of Shabbat candles with Torah study. In tractate Shabbat 23b of the Babylonian Talmud Rabbi Huna claims that families in which Shabbat candles are lit shall be rewarded by having sons who are Torah scholars. This belief was shared by Rashi, one of the most eminent medieval Torah commentators, who claimed that the following verse from the Book of Proverbs:
For the commandment [the mitzvah] is a lamp, and the Torah is a light. (Proverbs 6:23)
refers to the commandment to light Shabbat candles, the fulfillment of which shall be rewarded by having enlightened offspring. In the case of Rashi this prediction turned out to be true; since he had no sons, he raised his daughters to become Torah scholars.
Today Shabbat candles serve many different purposes: they bring us joy, they remind us of the arrival of Shabbat and they inspire us to broaden our knowledge about Judaism on the one day of the week which is not burdened with mundane worries. As we focus on the contemporary symbolic meanings of Shabbat candles, it is easy to forget that their original purpose was to lighten up the hours of darkness, which was a terrifying time for our ancestors. The light of Shabbat candles gave them hope that the Eternal would not forsake the people of Israel even in their history’s darkest moments. The light of Shabbat candles was – and still is – a part of our tradition which enables us to get a sense of what the presence of the Eternal in the Holy Tabernacle could have been like, as described in the final verse of this week’s double Torah portion, which also happens to be the last verse of the entire Book of Exodus:
For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the [Eternal] rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys (Exodus 40:38.)
The Eternal’s presence among the people of Israel offered them reassurance and instilled faith in a brighter future. During the nearest Shabbat candle lighting I encourage you to reflect on what kind of darkness hidden deep inside of you and your society you could help overcome. I hope this moment is not too far away!
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.